Russian airstrikes and selective outrage over Syria

Far too many people who have condemned U.S.-led airstrikes are perfectly happy to cheer on Moscow

Sharif Nashashibi
Sharif Nashashibi
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Many people who are against the U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria have also condemned those carried out by Russia since last week. Putting aside arguments for or against foreign intervention, this indicates a stance that is based on a specific principle and applied universally.

For example, the Stop the War Coalition said in a statement last week that just as it “has criticized U.S. bombing, and the possibility of British intervention, in Syria, so too we cannot support Russian military action. It remains our view, supported by long history and experience, that external interference has no part to play in resolving the problems in Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East.”

However, reaction on social media since the start of Russia's bombing campaign shows that far too many people who have condemned U.S.-led airstrikes are perfectly happy to cheer on Moscow. In the process, they are contradicting many of the reasons they cited for opposing the U.S.-led coalition. It seems, then, that the issue these people have is not that Syria and its people are being bombed, but who is doing the bombing.

One of the objections raised over the U.S.-led campaign was that there would be civilian casualties. Sure enough, from the start civilians have been killed and injured, and civilian infrastructure destroyed and damaged.

However, the same is true of Russia’s air campaign. Since it began just a few days ago, dozens of civilians, including children, have reportedly been killed, and many more injured. In addition, civilian targets so far have included homes, a field hospital and a mosque. Activists on the ground say most of the targets hit have been civilian.

The response from the Syrian regime’s apologists is to claim that these are all lies, that the sources are suspect, that photographic or video evidence is fake, and that media is bias - basically a big conspiracy.

People who will readily (and often rightly) accuse the Americans of disregard for civilian life are now suspending belief when it comes to the Russians, as if they could not possibly behave in such a way.

The Chechens would beg to differ. So too would the Afghans, who - like the Syrians now - have the dubious distinction of having American and Russian bombs dropped on them.

The willing suspension of belief extends beyond civilian casualties to the very fundamentals of military and propaganda warfare. It is as if deception during conflict is a uniquely Western phenomenon.

Far too many people who have condemned U.S.-led airstrikes are perfectly happy to cheer on Moscow. In the process, they are contradicting many of the reasons they cited for opposing the U.S.-led coalition

Sharif Nashashibi

For example, when I posted a BBC article on Facebook about Russian airstrikes killing civilians and hitting Syrian rebels opposed to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), people responded that U.S. officials - who were among the sources, which included Syrians on the ground - could not be trusted.

However, this was not simply a healthy skepticism of officialdom, whose job it is to deceive during conflict. The problem seems to be not that they were officials, but that they were American, because the doubters are all too willing to trust the denials and claims of Russian officials. They would not possibly be dishonest, particularly while their employer wages war!

“Do you believe this Western article?” someone asked me. “I just don’t believe what the Americans say.” Because only they are worthy of suspicion, apparently. The next day, Moscow admitted that its targets extended beyond ISIS, even though it had initially billed its campaign as being against the jihadist group. It turns out that so far, most of its airstrikes have focused on rebels opposed to both ISIS and the regime.


Remember all the condemnation of U.S-led airstrikes as foreign meddling? Are the Russians any less foreign? Or Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, whose fighters have been propping up the Syrian regime since at least 2012? Or Iran, which has reportedly sent hundreds of troops to take part in a major upcoming ground campaign with Russian air support?

Regime apologists respond that these parties’ involvement is legitimate because it is at the Syrian government’s request. Those who make such an argument - many of whom I know personally - will rightfully condemn U.S. military assistance to Israeli governments, or Western assistance to various autocracies. The irony is lost on them.

One also wonders how people square their support for Moscow’s intervention with their rejection of the U.S.-led campaign on the grounds that it would further militarize the conflict. What do they think is being dropped from Russian warplanes, flowers and chocolate?

Similarly, many supporters of Moscow’s air campaign were quick to point out the lack of a U.N. mandate for the U.S.-led campaign. They are, however, silent about the fact that Moscow does not have a U.N. mandate either.

There is also silence over the powerful Russian Orthodox Church’s deeply irresponsible description of the campaign as a “holy war.” That silence is particularly deafening considering the justified outcry over former U.S. President George W Bush’s reference to a “crusade” against terrorism.

While some have opposed both air campaigns as a matter of principle, others have been exposed for their selective outrage in supporting Moscow’s aerial bombardments by contradicting their reasons for opposing the U.S.-led campaign. In the current climate in Syria and the wider region, the damage being caused by selective outrage cannot be overestimated, because the resulting hypocrisy provides cover for justifying the unjustifiable.


Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya News, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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